Tony Cummings quizzed the Portugal-based songsmith CHRIS HAINES
Such is the international nature of the internet that it's possible for a singer/songwriter, born in Southampton, England and now living in Porto, Portugal, to get rave reviews for his independent releases. In fact, the Louder Than The Music site was particularly enthusiastic about the two albums by Chris Haines. They wrote, "The last we heard of Chris Haines was back in 2011 with his brilliant album 'But God'. Now the songwriter is back with a new album titled 'Seven Stars', and after already listening to it a few times, I can tell you this is a brilliant album and is as good as his last album, if not better."
From his home in Porto, Chris spoke about his early life. "Southampton was my birthplace and hometown growing up. For most of my childhood Dad made a living as a management training consultant, or something like that. I never really understood what it was he did, until he traded it in for a full time position at our local church as a pastor. Mum is a nurse at a local GP practice. Both my older sister and I attended a small, private Christian school. My folks had a pretty strong work ethic, always encouraging me to do my best and fulfil my potential. I was very little when I first decided to follow Jesus - maybe two years old. Dad led me through a prayer, but I would soon need some careful deliverance after cheerfully reporting to him several days later that I had also invited the blue tits that we're nesting in our garden into my heart! A little while later, about the age of three, I was sat in our kitchen with a plateful of garden peas, which I wasn't at all keen on. After having flicked a few of them across the tiled floor, desperately trying to reduce the burden in front of me (and well aware of the threat of no pudding for those who didn't finish their mains), I must have been hit with a wave of guilt. Sensing my need for forgiveness, I distinctly remember asking Mum how to become a Christian again. I got baptised when I was 10, and then later had some amazing encounters with God when I was about 12, but I struggled through my teen years. I wanted to serve God, and I knew how to do and say all the right things, but in reality I was living a bit of a double life. Later on, God seemed to get a hold of me and I started to grow a lot more radical and zealous, but I didn't really begin to grasp the grace of God until my early 20s - and am still now learning to grasp."
From a very young age Chris was fascinated by music. "I desperately wanted a guitar, which I got for my seventh birthday. Dad taught me all the basics, and then after that I just practised lots on my own. I formed a little band with a friend from church when I was 10, and then soon after we both got invited to join the worship team. I think they were pretty desperate for musicians at the time. I played a mixture of guitar and bass, whatever was needed. We weren't given any music so had to rely on memorising chords, which was hugely formative in learning to improvise and play by ear. I am so grateful for those early experiences."
While at university in Southampton Chris joined the rock band Mr E. Explained Chris, "The band had already recorded two albums when Harun, the frontman, asked me to join. They had gone through several bass players and were starting to run out of options. But things were picking up for them and there seemed to be a new seriousness about it, so I was thrilled to be a part of something like that. We were gigging most weekends, and I really grew in that time, trying to keep up with the other guys who were all top musicians. The guys would often laugh about my ridiculous bass solos. It was mostly pubs and clubs that we played in, and there would be a real mixture of onlookers and hecklers, but people always seemed to enjoy our sound. The most exciting and enjoyable part for me was the recording, and that definitely gave me and Harun a strong foundation for what was ahead."
In 2005 Mr E called it a day. Commented Chris, "In the end I think it became clear that there was a lack of common vision. I don't think any of us really knew what it was we were trying to achieve. Personally, the style of music we were writing was not what I was passionate about, and we would spend a lot of our time playing covers anyway, which I don't think any of us wanted to give our lives to. But there were no regrets, at least not on my part, and we remained good friends afterwards, each pursuing our own callings."
Freed from his band commitments Chris began writing songs with a talented multi-instrumentalist from his Southampton home church, Neil Cornish. Said Chris, "Apart from his songwriting brilliance, the main reason I like to write with him is his humility. I feel safe chucking out ideas knowing he won't instantly squash them. But he's also very thorough, and incredibly hard working. Once I have Neil on-board with a project, I know it's going to get done."
In 2008, however, Chris took a bold step and relocated to Porto. He explained, "I was starting to feel a little unsettled where I was, like I was being uprooted, and then through a series of events God began to lead me to join a church plant that was happening in Porto. It took me about a year to be confident it was what God was calling me to do, although it was pretty clear in the end. I moved at the end of October 2008, just after finishing the main recording sessions for 'But God'. I've been helping out for several years in the church that my wife and I have been a part of, serving in whatever area was needed. It's been a lot of fun and hard work. But we've recently heard God calling us back to the UK, so watch this space. . ."
The critically acclaimed 'But God' album was released in 2011. Said Chris, "I did a lot of the ground work at home in a half-baked studio I'd managed to cobble together. It was a lot of fun, and I was learning so much. Mostly I enjoyed the creativity of putting songs together and being free to play around with the arrangements as I pleased. In terms of the final recording, most of it was done in a few takes, although I remember flying back to the UK at Christmas and rushing into the studio to rerecord the vocals for 'Troubled' because I wasn't happy with them."
Chris believes the best two songs on 'But God' are "Troubled" and "Epignosis". Commented the songsmith, "The song that seems to have touched most lives is 'Troubled'. I stumbled upon the theme when I was looking through an old hymn book that a dear old lady in church had given to me, telling me that the Lord had told her to tell me about Ira Sankey, who was D L Moody's sidekick. I'd never heard of him before that. 'Troubled' is a song that brings hope to broken, troubled hearts, and I've heard several testimonies of people being helped out of depression through that song ministering to them. That makes all the hard grit worth it."
Speaking about "Epignosis" Chris said, "Epignosis is an ancient Greek word meaning 'knowledge' - the intimate kind, rather than the merely intellectual kind. It was the first song that was written for the album and I still love the worshipful lyrics. It's all about the mystery of knowing the God who is both transcendently glorious and intimately close."
Chris' second album 'Seven Stars' was written entirely in Porto. He explained, "We put together all the demos and pre-production at home and then went to Harun's studio for the real deal. Harun was the frontman for Mr E, and Knuci Records was the independent label he had set up to release all the projects he was getting involved in. He was the one who had suggested the idea of 'But God' and none of this would have happened without him believing in me. He's like a sponge and has really grown in producing, engineering and mixing."
Another key behind-the-scenes figure in the completion of 'Seven Stars' is Tom Fisher, a multi-instrumentalist who lives in Chichester. Explained Chris, "We didn't really know him, but Neil had heard him drum and we were looking for someone who could bring something fresh to the second album. We went out on a limb and invited him to join us for a songwriting weekend in Porto. It was probably one of the most fruitful songwriting times I've ever experienced and I'm really thrilled God connected us together like that. Having learned the huge value of co-writing, it's hard to imagine trying to pull something together on my own."
Chris spoke about two of the outstanding tracks on 'Seven Stars'. "'Augustine's Song' is probably my favourite lyrically. A non-Christian work colleague had gone to the library and found an old poem by St Augustine to write out in a birthday card for me. I was really touched that he would do such a thing and I was especially moved by the powerful words of the poem that ignite wonder in me at the grace of God in pursuing us. I couldn't find the original poem online anywhere, only what seemed to be a very different version of it, so I kept the birthday card in my songwriting folder for years. I attempted to craft a song for the 'But God' album, but it ended up being far too complex and it did no justice to the lyrics. It was during a songwriting weekend in Porto that Tom showed us this beautiful guitar part to which he'd been trying to write a song for years. When I started to sing a simple folk tune over the top with the words from that poem, we knew we'd found the perfect match. Obviously we had to tweak the lyrics a little to make them fit, and we invented a chorus (which is probably the weakest part of the song), but on the whole we tried not to mess too much with Augustine's genius!"
Another standout is the title track. Said Chris, "'Seven Stars' came about in a moment of real creativity with Neil. We were trying to write a song about Heaven and naturally turned to Revelation for inspiration, but we were more struck by the picture of the risen Christ and the proclamation of his second coming. We didn't honestly know where we were heading with it, but the words, the haunting melody and the complex arrangement all came together at the same time. It's almost French sounding and would sit happily alongside Yann Tiersen's soundtrack to Amelie. Although some people seem to think it sounds more like the theme tune to Downton Abbey! I really love listening to it still, which is a good sign."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.